There’s a renewed effort to curb noxious fum...

There’s a renewed effort to curb noxious fumes from idling school buses and trucks

Detroit has an anti-idling law on the books -- but police haven't written a single ticket.

Few in Detroit experience the hazards of diesel exhaust from idling trucks quite like residents on Southwest Detroit’s Woodmere Street. Among the offenders plaguing the area are trucks at a nearby grocery store, sausage factory and concrete company; a lot where truckers sometimes park and sleep for the night with their rigs running; and a truck driving school. 

Resident Ann Byrne describes enduring “waves” of diesel fumes that she believes are partly to blame for the asthma and behavioral disabilities among the area’s younger residents. 

“You’re sitting outside on the porch on a breezy, beautiful day and your air quality changes because of a nearby truck, or it’s been clean all day but you go to take your dog outside and there’s a truck idling on Vernor and all the sudden your air quality has gone down the toilet,” Byrne said. 

Ann Byrne on her front porch. Credit: Nick Hagen

While myriad sources contribute to Southwest Detroit’s dirty air, idling trucks and buses are among the most omnipresent and potent. Several new efforts are designed to finally get a hold on the problem not just in Detroit, but across the state, and there’s a special focus on school bus fumes. 

Those include a revision of Detroit’s flawed, decade-old anti-idling ordinance that has resulted in zero tickets to date; new truck routes in the city; a push for funding for school bus electrification; education campaigns targeting bus drivers and parents; and new policies for where and how school buses pick up kids. 

Though statistics on how much toxic exhaust is pumped into the air by vehicles either in southwest Detroit or on the state’s school bus routes don’t exist, idling is considered a problem partly because toxic diesel fumes are released in close proximity to people.

“The reason diesel emissions are so bad is that they are emitted at human level, the tailpipes and smokestacks on trucks are much closer to, us and the emissions are heavy – they pass through the lungs and get into the tissue in our body,” said Simone Sagovac, who leads the Southwest Community Benefits Coalition.

The fumes contain nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, which not only trigger asthma attacks but are linked to or proven to cause cancer, asthma, COPD, high blood pressure, cognitive deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, learning disabilities, dementia, low birth weight and more. 

It’s particularly bad for kids who breathe faster than adults, have still-developing lungs and breathe more air per pound than adults. A short amount of exposure – such as a ride to school in a diesel bus or from a nearby idling truck – can trigger acute health problems, especially in highly polluted neighborhoods, said Kindra Weid, a nurse and coalition coordinator with the MI Air MI Health nonprofit.

“It can just be that brief exposure that triggers an attack, and it really has the potential to cause serious issues and land people in the hospital,” she said. 

That makes the stakes particularly high in Detroit, where asthma hospitalizations are three times the state average, but the pollution load is much higher in all counties with urban centers. Meanwhile, Michigan’s asthma rate is higher than the national average, 700,000 kids here regularly ride a school bus, and recent studies have linked fumes to behavioral problems and absenteeism. 

While the transportation sector’s electrification is the ultimate solution, better policies are needed in the short term. 

“We can fix up your acute problem or chronic problem, but if we’re just continually discharging you back home into the very same environments that make you sick in the first place, then we’re really not fixing the problem,” Weid said. 

Fixing a flawed anti-idling ordinance

Around a decade ago, advocates hailed Detroit’s new anti-idling ordinance, which was designed to reign in toxic fumes spewed from idling trucks near homes across the city, but especially in Southwest Detroit. 

The area is burdened with a concentration of truck traffic because it’s near the Ambassador Bridge and holds a high number of shipping terminals, and truckers often park or cut through residential streets. 

A recent survey conducted by the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition and the Detroit Health Department put a point on the problem: It found that children and seniors living on a truck route or within 500 feet of Interstate 75 suffer asthma at 2-3 times the local average.  Another analysis in partnership with SEMCOG found 650-750 trucks traveled residential roads in Southwest Detroit during a 12-hour period on a weekday. 

“In Southwest in general, dealing with this unresolved truck problem is something that causes so much grief for families,” Sagovac said, noting that the neighborhood is the city’s most densely populated, among the lowest income, and holds the highest concentration of children under five years old.

Though trucks regularly idle in residential neighborhoods throughout the day, the Detroit Police Department hasn’t written a single ticket because the anti-idling law was flawed, and city and community leaders have gone back to the drawing board.  

“The ordinance as written isn’t effective because it’s not enforceable,” said Nicole Vargas, policy director for Detroit City Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López.

This lot at the end of Ann Byrne’s street in Southwest Detroit regularly has idling trucks. Credit: Nick Hagen

In short, it requires police to observe a vehicle idling for at least five minutes before writing a warning, and there’s no system for tracking warnings. The department also doesn’t have the resources or manpower to effectively enforce the law, Vargas said. 

Most anti-idling ordinances across the country that are similar to that in Detroit have failed, and convincing law enforcement to take the issue seriously has been a ”head banging against the wall experience,” said Susan Mudd, senior policy advocate with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which pushes for stronger idling laws and bus electrification in the Great Lakes region. 

But new legislation being drafted by Castañeda-López’s office is modeled off of one of the few success stories. New York City enlists what are effectively citizen watchdogs who earn money by videoing offenders and submitting the evidence to authorities. If a citation is issued and paid, then the watchdog gets a portion of the fine. 

Their office is still ironing out details on how such an arrangement would work locally and ensuring it is in compliance with state law, Vargas said. But the DPD has given generally positive feedback, and, perhaps most importantly, the new law would remove the warning requirement.

The city is also working on establishing truck routes, another tool that would curb idling near residential areas by limiting streets that trucks can legally use, which Sagovac said is key to curbing idling. 

“If they’re not driving on residential streets, then they’re less likely to be idling on those streets,” she said. 

School buses

A 2016 study underscored just how dangerous the seemingly benign daily school bus ride can be: children in a bus were exposed to four times the amount of diesel particulate as a child who rode as a passenger in a car along the same route. 

Meanwhile, buses idle while loading kids, spewing diesel particulate into the air around them, and in some cases near the building’s air intake, which distributes fumes throughout the school. 

“It’s really a recipe for disaster,” said Tina Reynolds, environmental health program director for Michigan Environmental Council.

Multiple studies on school bus fumes suggest that the exposure can lead to behavioral problems and lower academic performance â€“ Georgia students’ math and reading scores improved when their buses were retrofitted to reduce diesel emissions. Meanwhile, children in Washington districts missed fewer days after schools switched to a low sulfur fuel that reduced particulate concentrations in the bus by up to 50%.

It’s this sort of evidence that’s spurring a patchwork of efforts to reduce kids’ exposure during the ride to school, either through electrification or other policies. MEC, in partnership with the Asthma Collaborative of Detroit, recently secured funding for a pilot program that would work with three districts in rural and urban settings to implement policies that would reduce school bus idling and raise awareness among parents and bus drivers about how diesel fumes harm kids.  

School bus in Southwest Detroit. Credit: Nick Hagen

The effort would involve measuring emissions before and after the policies and campaigns are implemented, and the ultimate goal is to expand the program statewide. 

“Once a kid leaves for compulsory education parents have so little control and schools should recognize that one; It’s good for kids to be healthy, and two; They have the responsibility because they are the parents for the day and they should treat the kids as their own,” Reynolds said. 

Longer-term, transportation sector electrification will solve the issue, and billions of dollars proposed for school bus electrification is included in the infrastructure bill and Clean Commute For Kids Act, which MI Air MI Health is asking the state’s delegation to support. 

So far, only Rep. Debbie Dingell has signed on as a co-sponsor for the Clean Commute bill, and it’s unclear if either will pass both chambers. Meanwhile, the Senate version of the infrastructure bill reduced electric school bus funding by about $17 billion, and Mudd noted that there are few electric bus manufacturers so a production ramp-up could be slow. 

However, more are jumping in the game as districts realize the obvious economic and health benefits of electrified buses. 

“School buses seem like a tiny piece of the problem, but it’s something that people can get behind and be supportive of,” Weid said.

Planet Detroit’s Solving Lead & Asthma in Detroit series is underwritten, in part, by the Erb Family Foundation. 

Tom Perkins is a freelance reporter living in Hamtramck. Follow him at @PomTerkins on Twitter.